It’s grim here in Crystal Palace today. The bright skies and icy conditions of the last few days have given way to a profoundly miserable gloom. It’s mid-afternoon. I look out of the window at the little park down below. There are a few fast-fading licks and splodges of snow which cling hopelessly to the grass. The pathways between the trees are shiny black from the drizzling rain which is descending through a thick, yellowy mist. The cries of children are absent from the playground; the swings hang idle; no-one urges on the hang-dog horse; the roundabout turns not, and the jungle-like climbing frame has no climbers. People, swaddled to their noses in coats and scarves, hurry along head down. We’re up above freezing point now, but it’s still cold; a damp, through-to-your-bones cold.
W and I missed the cold of the previous week. We were basking in 20C in La Palma, the most north-westerly of the Canary Islands. We walked around in T-shirts. Sat and ate our lunch on the balcony of our hotel room which looked out over the sea and along the rugged black volcanic coast towards the jumbled, Lego-like buildings of the capital, Santa Cruz. We walked past brilliant banks of carmine and yellow bougainvillea pouring over garden walls. We sat on the black sand beaches and watched the breakers rolling in from the Atlantic. Leaving all that, travelling for a mere four hours and then getting out of the plane at London’s Gatwick airport to be greeted by -4C was something of a shock.
But that was then – we’re back here now. And looking out again on the cold, wet park it has a magic. It’s alive, it’s life. Walk in the rain, feel it on your face. Feel the wind in your hair, sense it coursing across your hands and fingers. Hear the rustling of the wet leaves as you pass beneath trees and see the drops of rainwater their rustling dislodges and which fall on the path at your feet. And not far off a robin sings. Or – to be more realistic – declaims aggressively that this is his patch, his territory. Extraordinary birds, robins, that ‘sing’ all through the year. Nothing stops him. But our cuddly mascot, so beloved of the cosy Christmas card trade, is in fact an antagonistic and bellicose little person. But we all of us have to survive in whatever way we can.
How birds of all shapes and sizes – especially the smallest ones – cope and survive in really cold weather I’ve no idea. How such an apparently frail organism can withstand conditions which would see off many a human being overnight is beyond me. Many of course, don’t survive. Bitterly cold winters are notorious for killing off thousands of very small birds such as wrens and dunnocks – AKA ‘hedge sparrows’. I wonder what they do in the depths of winter nights – burrow as deep down as they can into hedgerows and clamp their tiny feet around its branches? Fluff up their feathers, close their eyes and stoically await the morning sun? Wrens apparently have been known to huddle together in large numbers in nest boxes in urban gardens. And blustering opportunists like starlings simply plaster themselves in their thousands across the faces of buildings in the centres of towns and cities, soaking up the warmth, built up during the day, that escapes from those places at night. But life isn’t easy.
I look out the window once more. The yellowish mist has given way to a thick overcast harbouring heavy, grey rain clouds. And dusk is upon the world. The street lights, the lights in houses and flats are coming on, sending yellow orange fingers out across the wet pavements. Car headlights flicker as they pass the other side of the bare trees that line the roads. The park is now dark and quite empty. Nothing in it moves. The leafless trees are black. The warmth, the luxuriant vegetation of La Palma is well behind us, but will no doubt, help sustain us till the Spring.